Wither, Ch3

Last time on Wither, Rhine explores the house of the guy who kidnapped her and met one of his dying older wives.


She apparently took Gabriel’s advice and slept, because she’s woken the next morning by a bunch of servants.

They’re first generation, if the gray hair is any indication

What? How on earth could any servant be first generation? Even if these people originally became servants, they’ve had fifty years to realize they’re part of a quickly shrinking labor pool made up of the only adults left on the planet.

You know the Black Death? It really sucked to live through that, but it also is the foundation of much of Western civilization. See, after a third of the population dies, you suddenly need labor a lot more. There’s still fields to plant and sheep to herd and trees to cut. Before, Europe was overpopulated. There were more people than jobs. If a nobleman felt a crust of bread was a fair price for emptying chamberpots, you couldn’t argue because there was someone behind you who thought a crust of bread was better than the crumbs they were currently eating.

Then the Black Death hits, and suddenly you can get plenty of bread by planting grain on the vast empty fields, and if the nobleman wants you do work for him he’s got to give you more than that.

You should not be able to hire any of the first generation for servants. At best, you might get one in as head servant whose purpose is just to train kids and run things, and they’d command enormous salaries.

Also…why are there no before first generation people around at all? The author seems to be acting like science invented superbabies and people waited for all the current kids to grow up and then those all had kids at twenty. And even if that somehow happened, instead of, as I mentioned last time, the original models being at most nine months older, they’d only be ninety by now, humans live to be ninety all the time!

One of the women looks over my naked body and says, “Well, at least we won’t have to wrestle this one out of her clothes.”

Jesus christ.

Well, that’s one way to distract me from worldbuilding issues.

How can people do this?

Well, Rhine then proves herself a decent person by saying this reminds her of the fact there’s two other girls. Trapped in this house somewhere, behind other locked doors. Her response to the current wife is worrying, but at least she’s quite sympathetic toward the other girls.

“Best if you don’t struggle,” one of them says cheerfully.

I keep thinking of all the banned books lists I see circulating. People have issue with a racial slur in a book that’s against racism, yet I haven’t heard a peep about the fact this is a YA book. They shouldn’t ban this one either, it’s just really messed up people are more upset by Huck Finn than this monstrosity.

Apparently I’m not supposed to find this creepy and horrifying and it proceeds to play out just like when Katniss was getting made over. In fact, I’m going to just assume this is copying those books and blame them for it all.

Rhine thinks about how pink and frilly everything is.

Back home we covered our windows with burlap at night to give the impression of poverty and to keep out the prying eyes of new orphans looking for shelter and handouts. The house I shared with my brother has three bedrooms, but we’d spend our nights on a cot in the basement, sleeping in shifts just in case the locks didn’t hold, using our father’s shotgun to guard us.

So things are pretty bad outside of mansions, even when you’re not getting kidnapped.

But why would orphans just be wandering the streets? I mentioned no first generation would be a servant, but the labor force issue goes beyond that. There’s incredible workforce turnover. You not only need replacement workers constantly, but you can’t afford the time to train them normally, so you’re better off taking in kids too young to do the work yet and starting to teach them so you can get the maximum years of work out of them. And your workforce demands are only going to increase over time as more things break and people can’t fix them so they have to do more things manually.

The only way this could make sense is if they’ve automated everything and maintaining that turned out to be relatively easy. Also if Republicans are in charge because otherwise someone would figure out it’s still better for the economy to employ those kids. Actually, no, libertarians. Must be libertarians. Republicans might make food stamps require slave labor or throw everyone in prison, but they’d at least figure you have to do something with the kids.

I don’t argue when I’m told to get into the tub. It’s awkward being naked in front of these strangers, but

There is no but. Even if it’s not awkward being naked in front of people in general, you’ve been kidnapped to be raped. They are cleaning you up to be raped. If there was ever a time to be upset about being naked in front of people, it’s now.

but the water looks and smells appealing. It’s so unlike the bleary yellowed water that runs through the rusty pipes in the house I shared with my brother.
Shared. Past tense. How could I let myself think this way?

Well, the same way you’ve been thinking of things as your room and your bed. The author mentions this now, but doesn’t go anywhere with it beyond using it as a springboard for Rhine to “defiantly” think about her home – and continuing our comparison, the defiance reads much like Katniss’ pointless raging at the universe, not something with meaning to it.

But she quickly switches from her house to the house next door and a friend.

We would string paper cups across the divide and talk to each other in giggles.
That little girl was orphaned young. Her parents were the new generation; she barely knew her mother, her father fell ill, and then one morning I reached for her and she was gone.

That’s really horrible.

…But I don’t understand why. She says that she and her brother, even without their parents, have to pretend poverty. Why so didn’t her parents just take this other girl in? They must have had enough to care for another kid. Is there some sort of mandatory orphanage the kids are put in, and why on earth would there be? And if there’s some other place for orphans to go, why wouldn’t she have known about it too and been able to visit?

Instead, her mother tries to distract her by saying the string used for to play paper cup telephone was kite string and she used to fly kites, and Rhine falls for it and asks for stories.

frozen lakes where she would skate swanlike into figure eights

So…global warming won? There aren’t lakes to skate on now?

We find out that they live in Manhattan.

Manhattan, NY.

You know, the example city every time someone discusses how fast our cities will fall apart without constant maintenance. The place that requires pumps running 24/7 to keep from being flooded, that’s riddled with underground tunnels ready to cave in and giant skyscrapers ready to fall. And the sewer system. God, the sewer system. You’d need every orphan you could get your hands on just to try to keep back the water, and after a couple decades of this, I think whoever’s left would just leave. There are other cities that aren’t constantly on the brink of collapse, that don’t require massive infrastructure just to get the supplies in, that don’t require relying on bridges and boats to leave. Plus, they’re warmer, which is going to be an issue if you’ve got massive poverty.

But somehow the place is there and not flooded at all. Rhine says that after her parents died, they buried things in the garden to hide them (the presumably not-getting-flooded garden)

beneath the ailing lilies.

This too is weird. Why does she let her mother’s flowers die? Maybe it’s depression, but it’d be nice to have that spelled out, because protecting things someone cared about and carrying on traditions are a big way we deal with death. Is that lost in this current world where parents outlive their children, and it’s the first generations who are expected to provide all the continuity?

These things are my past, and I will not allow them to be washed away. I will find a way to have them back.

This is a nice sentiment, though.

I just still don’t get why she just let the lilies die. It doesn’t seem to even serve a point in the story – why can’t she want to get back because that’s where her mother’s lilies are, or, if the decay metaphor is so inescapable, why not say she did everything she could but her mother had never taught her how to care for the flowers and no matter what she did they died? That would be a horrible message about the way their society is inevitably falling apart because the young can’t keep their parents’ world running.

They finally notice her special eyes. Turns out one’s blue and the other’s brown. She says she’s pretty sure it’s just a useless genetic glitch, but no, I think I see their point, it’s a sign she’s not a perfect copy which is good because they know the normal type of second gen kid dies and all their kids die too.

That said if people actually know about genetics they’ll know that a major cause of it is cell division errors right in that area, which happens randomly in people who have normal cell division, so it doesn’t mean her other cells are that more likely to be mutated. I guess it’s better than nothing if you don’t have genetic testing, but why the hell wouldn’t they have genetic testing?

“Suppose those are real?” one woman asks.
“What else would they be but real?” This time I speak aloud, and they’re startled, then delighted. Their doll has a voice.

And we’re back to horribleness again!

And suddenly they’re all questions. Where am I from, do I know where I am, don’t I just love the view, do I like horses—there’s a lovely stable—do I prefer my hair up or down?

I can’t tell if they’re really horrible people who think this is reasonable conversation, or if they’re really horrible people who don’t even care if it’s reasonable conversation.

Rhine refuses to answer. Good, Rhine, I’m glad you’ve figured out the rapist’s servants are bad people too.

however well intentioned they may be

THEY’RE NOT WELL-INTENTIONED

They really aren’t. You’re their doll. They want you to look presentable and keep the screaming and struggling to a minimum for your internment here.

People who are “well-intentioned” generally don’t introduce themselves by saying they’re glad you’re already naked because it’s so annoying when the girls fight back while they’re being stripped. These are horrible, horrible people.

Someone knocks.

“We’re getting her ready for the Governor,” one of the women says.

As I said. They’re getting her presentable before she gets raped. And that’s what the so-sympathetic boy was telling her she should get plenty of rest for.

But apparently the current wife asked for her, and she outranks the regular servants.

Whatever was in that bathwater has heightened my neurons, left me feeling unpeeled and exposed. I still feel as though bubbles are popping against my skin.

…eurgh.

Author, I think you think this is just idle talk about how awesome all the luxury is, because apparently you have already forgotten the rape thing. I haven’t. Please don’t imply they’re basting her in chemicals that make her skin really sensitive, it’s really, really creepy.

Also, no, I don’t know why “unpeeled”. The author can’t write is my guess.

The other servant turns out to be a little girl. That’s more fitting with how I’d expect things to be run. She explains all the things Rhine shouldn’t do while talking to Rose, like not referring to her as Lady Rose at all times.

She’s in charge of things. The House Governor will do anything she asks, so be sure to stay on her good side.

That’s weird, but it also seems like this is the Victorian ideal of “anything”, since clearly she’s not allowed to refuse the medical treatment she’s given. Rhine doesn’t consider if this woman has enough power to let her go, or even just tell her brother what happened to her.

“Lady Rose? I brought her like you said.”
“Well, then, let her in,” Rose snaps. “And go make yourself useful somewhere else.”

Which is very different from how she acted yesterday, but the little girl servant doesn’t seem to take this as odd so I guess it’s how she usually is.

Rose looks better, but when Rhine gets closer she sees that’s just a layer of cosmetics. The only part of her that still looks right are her eyes, which Rhine says still look young and healthy. She’s surprised and says she never believed her mother about how natural humans used to live past twenty.

That doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense, book. The first gen new models lived past twenty just fine, so it isn’t like Rhine never saw anyone older, and they can’t look completely different than normal humans. That’s without getting into the fact they still have videos, to say nothing of pictures, of the world before this.

Rose is the first twenty-year-old I’ve spoken to at length, and though she’s stifling a cough that sprays blood into her fist, her skin is still smooth and soft.

This is just so weird. It’s the same as the insistence she never saw someone sick with the virus. Her friend next door’s dad died of it, didn’t he? She never saw him either healthy or sick? Why would you need a lengthy conversation to notice someone’s skin isn’t wrinkled?

She asks where Rhine’s from. Rhine doesn’t want to play along politely.

How can I when I’m made to sit and watch her die so I can be given to her husband and forced to bear children I never wanted?

…but all she does is just ask where Rose was taken from instead. It’s technically breaking one of the rules she was told by the little girl, about answering questions but not asking any, but it’s hardly a huge breach.

It turns out Rose wasn’t taken far. She’s from the town they’re in. She and the rapist were raised together, because it’s not like doing that is the best way to ensure the kids view each other as siblings and don’t want to have sex. You know, the book claims the first gen were awesome but their IQ seems to have taken a major hit.

But in defiance of biological programming, this effectively incestuous relationship worked and she’s madly in love with the guy. I guess that was one of the modifications to their genes, next to having a super immune system.

She is so lost in this memory, and so blind to my imprisonment.

I’m not sure how Rhine gets that, though. Rose is the only one who seems to even understand that Rhine’s imprisoned, and she’s the only one who acknowledges Rhine hates it.

“This is in the orange grove. My father owned acres of them. Here in Florida.”

Rhine finds that last bit the relevant part, because shit she’s even farther than she thought, but the middle is more important, I think.

So Rose isn’t a poor orphan. Or maybe she is, “acres” is a very vague amount, but generally, when someone says their dad owned a lot of something it’s meant to mean they’re wealthy. So she’s apparently the product of two wealthy families intermarrying. And yet she doesn’t contradict the statement she was taken. But maybe that’s just sloppy writing and the idea is she and the man, Linden, spent a lot of time together. From how she’s talking, the grove in the picture seems like it’s her dad’s, not Linden’s dad’s.

Still, if the wealthy with boys like to steal girls to be their brides, why wouldn’t the ones with girls do the same to ensure a safe relationship? This is clearly a world where women’s rights have taken a major beating, and that means it’s a world where people should be concerned about letting someone with equal monetary power near their baby girl. If nothing else he’ll end up (as we see here) getting more wives. Now, in the past there’s been reasons to intermarry, but those are gone now. Children are precious just for being alive, and your daughter only has twenty short years, why wouldn’t you want her to stay on your own estates?

Rhine agrees the place is beautiful, and Rose says there are festivals in both spring and winter. With who? How many people are left?

Going back to the book I mentioned last time, with the 1918 ebola flu. In it, the only people immune are those of African descent. So you have this massive dieoff of the white population of America. The white people are still racist as hell, but even the KKK will hire black people when they’re the second to last person on earth. The whites slowly moved north to try to stay in areas where they’re the majority, but even there they’re losing their grip. In the city it’s set in, the remaining country clubs are mixed. There’s exactly one remaining white’s-only club that will let in anyone white, and they’re considering integrating because they’re still losing members faster than they can be replaced. I thought it was a great demonstration of all the tiny things that fall apart.

So. With that in mind, who’s going to these parties? The wealthy, sure, but how many wealthy people are left? When society crumbles, the rich aren’t untouched. Only a smaller and smaller number of people will be able to maintain their wealth. And even if we assume they expand their circle of who qualifies, with the population dropping and the first generation sick of raising children just for them to die, how long can they have huge parties? Or is it more a fiddling while Rome burns thing, where this is all they throw their remaining effort into while they try to pretend the world isn’t falling apart?

Or am I overthinking and it’s just there so there can be regency costume parties? Probably. The next thing Rose says is that the rapist doesn’t like the big parties but is a great dancer, which is your typical romance trope.

“Do you know how old Linden is?” she asks me. I shake my head. “He’s twenty-one. We’d planned to marry since we were children, and I suppose he thought all these medicines would keep me alive for four extra years.

Hm. So it does seem like she’s a willing bride.

Linden’s father is apparently a doctor. Rhine’s parents were both geneticists. This honestly makes plenty of sense to me – once people realize what’s going on, I’d expect everyone with the slightest inclination toward science would try to go into the field.

The man is still searching for an “antidote” continuing our string of words that don’t actually fit in context. It’s like this was written with empty slots and then a computer picked a random related word to fill it in. Rose doesn’t expect anything from it.

Where I come from, hordes of new orphans will file into laboratories, offering themselves up to be guinea pigs for a few extra dollars.

…but you can’t run an economy on paying people to do research on them.

an antidote never arrives, and a thorough analysis of our gene pool turns up no abnormalities to explain this fatal virus.

Okay. From the look of things, I’m going to spend the whole book ranting on how that’s not how viruses work. So I’m going to just say that somehow, linguistic drift resulted in “virus” being used to mean a lot of things that aren’t viruses and ignore this.

What I can’t ignore is the idea that they can’t figure out what’s wrong by looking at it. The only way you can have identical genes but different expression is with epigenetic factors, but we know about that, as you may have gathered by the fact we have a word for it, and it’s the very first thing scientists would look into when they saw a situation where two identical DNA strings were expressing in different ways. That’s literally the whole meaning of the word: changes that are outside the genes! If you described the problem, someone with a grasp of Greek could coin the word on the spot!

Particularly irritating is that epigenetics is very poorly understood, so if we did accidentally screw that up, unscrewing it could conceivably be outside our ability. It’s just we’d be able to recognize the problem rather than running the same DNA test over and over and being surprised when it gives the same result.

And then Rose gets creepy and horrible.

“Sixteen is perfect. You can spend the rest of your lives together. He won’t have to be alone.”

And Rhine remembers where she is and that she’s a prisoner.

Linden stole his brides so he wouldn’t have to die alone. What about my brother, alone in that empty house? What about the other girls who were shot to death in that van?
My anger is back.

Yes. Thank you, Rhine. You’re shaping up into a quite tolerable protagonist.

She’s furious at Rose. Rose who has mounted a horse and ridden beyond the orange
groves.

Indeed. Rose isn’t someone in a similar situation after all. She’s a normal wife and apparently has plenty of clout in the household but let this happen anyway.

Rose who intends to pass her death sentence on to me once she’s gone.

…well, no, that makes less sense. I wonder if there was some earlier version of this where the early death was directly connected to bearing kids or having sex, because Rhine dies either way under the current setup. (This would also explain why you have to force women to be wives.) The issue is the imprisonment, not the death.

Anyway, before Rhine can explode the little girl comes to fetch her because the doctor needs to “prepare her” for her rapist. She’s the first one to show actual upset over any of this process.

“You’ll meet Housemaster Vaughn tonight,” she whispers. The blood has drained from her face

Can’t be good. It’s particularly worrying given all the other terrible things no one seems to mind.

She’s brought somewhere dim that smells antiseptic, and there’s a man she doesn’t recognize.

there’s a stinging pain in my arm. I have only time to process what I’m seeing: a sterile, windowless room. A bed with a sheet, and restraints where arms and legs might go.

And then she falls unconscious from the drug and the chapter ends.

Well, it’s definitely a good point to end at.

This was a horrifying chapter, though I’m pretty sure it was supposed to be a mix of luxury and terror instead. It seems like it’s playing off the usual tropes where the young women stolen from her home is wooed with a demonstration of the perks she gains as the nobleman’s wife, but then OH NO there is also something sinister! Because the kidnapping and imprisonment and impeding rape don’t count.

I can’t help but think this is getting written to a romance script. It’s not how I write, so it’s harder for me to tell, but god, last chapter she met his hidden first wife with fantasy tuberculosis, there’s no way this isn’t blindly copying a Victorian script.

It’s sort of like how Eragon is copying Star Wars. Oh, I said when I heard this. You mean because it’s a farmboy going up against an evil empire? No, explained the haters, we mean it’s literally copying the  movie point by point. That doesn’t make sense, I said. Because Star Wars has fantasy scifi and spaceships and robots, and Eragon is about a boy and his dragon. Well, said the haters. About that.

I would never make half those connections, because to me there are important differences between an egg and a message. I have absolutely no interest writing Star Wars 2, but if the backdrop was changed and there was a dragon in half the scenes, but I really can’t argue that it’s how Eragon was plotted in many ways. I similarly have no interest in writing gothic romance, but what if instead of impoverished peasantry and decadent aristocracy it was impoverished peasantry and decadent aristocracy IN THE FUTURE, but I’m pretty sure that’s what this is. If I knew the genre better I think I’d see even more points it’s hitting.

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9 Comments

  1. Niesse says:
    Build your own dystopian world!
    “It is the near future. Life is much harder, thanks to a [virus/computer takeover/alien invasion/climate shift] caused by [genetic engineering/Nazis/laissez-faire capitalism/gay marriage] which means everyone [dies at twenty/fails at logic/cheats on their spouses/must compete in death tournaments]. Humanity’s only hope is [finding an antidote/a grassroots cultural shift/cross-world evacuation/the author pulling something out of their arse].”
    All results guaranteed to make perfect sense.

    (If you can see this, then comments are working again. Unless there are two simultaneous problems, of course.)

    3
    1. Rachel says:
      It is the near future. Life is much harder, thanks to the [downfall of the internet] caused by [those nasty aliens] which means
      everyone [has developed severe allergies to grass]. Humanity’s only hope is [nothing. Humanity is doomed].
      I’m a genius!
      2
      1. Niesse says:
        You’re an author now! Quick, publish it as YA and make a fortune.
        2
  2. purplekitte says:
    Children are precious just for being alive, and your daughter only has twenty short years, why wouldn’t you want her to stay on your own estates? This reminds me, if more and more people are getting to be the children of second gen people, then they all should be orphaned really young. The eldest child would have their mother die around eight at the latest and their father around twelve, at which point they should already be thinking about marriage, particularly if they’re a girl, and all that would happen younger for subsequent kids. That would be more reason for kidnapping being so easy: someone in their early teens wouldn’t have the protection of parents or time to achieve power themselves, and at best an older sibling or uncle would try to help them.
    This makes Rhine’s being a sixteen-year-old virgin even more ridiculous. People should not just want to have two or three kids, but to have them when the woman is as young as possible so she will have maximum time to raise them. If her two kids are seven and eight when she dies, they’re ready to start working, and ready to get married themselves or so when their father dies. If they’re two and three, they’re much worse off and a further drain on society.
    1. Farla says:
      I suppose the idea with Rhine is that people are just deciding not to have kids at all. This doesn’t explain why she’s a virgin, though. Maybe there’s no birth control or sex ed in the hopes that sooner or later they’ll give in and have sex, explaining why all the kids seem to be born to people in their late teens.

      What I really can’t understand is why no one seems to try to find someone to adopt their kid. Rhine’s best childhood friend lived right next to a first gen couple who had kids her age! Why wouldn’t the father ask if they’d look after his kid? Especially when the date of death is so precise, so you can easily plan around it.

      1. purplekitte says:
        Also, it’s been indicated Rhine and her brother are wealthy enough to have to hide it, but are independently wealthy or rich enough to live on one income or does she have a job? She really should. It could be something completely useless to the current situation, like working in a factory, but, again, theoretical labor shortage, particularly if she’s not in childcare for her own or other people’s children.
        1. Farla says:
          They both work, apparently, it’s just that even unskilled work somehow gets you more money than you need. Yet they don’t consider working less even though her brother is doing really hard manual labor.
    1. Farla says:
      You have escaped!

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